The Czechoslovak Public and Constitutional Organ of the Republic
THE FIRST DRAFT OF THE NEW CONSTITUTION
It was January 18, 1990 and the Czech and Slovak nations were meeting together to hammer out the “Constitution of the People”. Vaclav Havel was attempting to gather diverse factions that had assisted in bringing about the Velvet Revolution and subsequent independence from the Communist influence. We stood in the room, awed by the realization that we were watching a new nation about to be born. Experts on constitutional law from the West had arrived and were guiding the arduous task of framing the nation’s founding and fundamental manifesto.
The initial draft document, it is littered with handwritten notes from various participants, making alterations, refining language, and reaching for the democratic heavens to pen a preamble that would match the spirit of a good and beleaguered people. We were given the document to bring back to Ottawa, scribbles and all, to seek input into what would not only be a remarkable exercise in democratic birth but in citizenship vitality.
All that was almost 25 years ago now, but to have been there at the creation effectively baptized us into the potential of collective humanity. The Velvet Revolution, the Arab Spring, the birth of the Republic of South Sudan – all of these remarkable developments pass through our minds as Westerners and then we move on, oblivious to the lessons we need to learn. All three of the vital historical developments were about people, average folks like us, attempting to win back their country through collective effort. Tired of witnessing their potential squandered by elite forces seeking their own privileged advantage, the citizens comprehended that only fundamental political reform could bring about the future they had been willing to fight for.
What would they think of a privileged country like Canada that could only summon 60% of their citizens to vote on their future? Or of cities like London, Ontario, that couldn’t even achieve 40% turnout in the last civic election? Surely their disillusionment would grow if they witnessed how we send people off to political office who are more concerned with their party than they are with their constituents. Vaclav Havel, and those citizens who followed him into political freedom and subsequently into the history books would marvel at how we have taken our collective eye off the ball.
Can we get our heads around the reality that our obligations of Canadian citizenship are now more symbolic than real? In the face of onrushing change on so many levels we seem to be opting to cast off the social solidarity and committed citizenship that would be capable of offsetting the concentrated power of our age. We are in danger of dropping the historic complexities of federalism if favour of simplistic ideologies and tribal instincts. When, in goodwill, we were asked to bring the Constitution mentioned above back to Canada it was because the delegations marveled at our country’s ability to summon its diverse and competing sectors together to overcome our national challenges. I wonder, as a people, if we still possess that tensile strength to hold our political, media, financial and cultural elite to account for the ultimate benefit of us all?
Are we still effective stewards of our nation or have we become absentee landlords? Do we still regard the public space as sacred or have we stood back and watched it defiled in a manner similar to what was once the people’s place – the House of Commons? We are no longer relatively isolated but, in fact, lie vulnerable to the onrushing effects of global change. It remains somewhat easy to keep our identity when we lie geographically remote from some of the world’s great challenges; now they are unavoidable, and unless we know what we’re about, much of what we have cherished will be gone.
I once heard someone say years ago that Canada will always excel when it views itself as a notion instead of a nation. A notion is an idea in progress, evolving, innovating, moving forward in an effort to grasp a meaningful existence just beyond our grasp. A nation can become a static entity, encumbered by laws, tribalism, impossible to reform – a land where power and money ever accrue upward beyond the reach of the average citizen. Eventually every nation reaches a stage where it must advance or decline. And in affluent nations where changes, both positive and negative, can be so incremental as to be invisible, it remains exceedingly difficult to spot the decline until it is too late.
According to Mark Twain, “While history doesn’t repeat itself, it does rhyme.” Yes, every nation’s path is different and its own uniqueness created. But eventually countries, like people, can become top-heavy, risk-averse, fail to innovate, and wrap their energies around their own concerns exclusively. Whether or not Canada can find a more productive and compassionate future will very much depend on whether its citizens know what they are about. Who are they? What do they want?
The picture above is the constitutional draft I was talking about. Each handwritten note is a piece of humanity attempting to write its own history. It’s time for a Canadian rebirth, but only if we place citizens in the centre and power to the periphery.